What Is the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

The tool formerly known as the FAFSA4caster can estimate how much federal financial aid you might get for college.
Anna Helhoski
By Anna Helhoski 
Updated
Edited by Alexandra Rice

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🤓Nerdy Tip

Is the new FAFSA available? After a weeklong "soft-launch" period, the redesigned FAFSA for the 2024-25 academic year is now available 24/7 at FAFSA.gov. Due to major processing delays, you won't be able to make changes to your submitted FAFSA until mid-March, at the soonest.

You can still submit the 2023-24 FAFSA until June 30, 2024.

Dive deeper into FAFSA

If you’re looking to get an idea of how much federal aid you can expect, the Federal Student Aid Estimator is your one-stop shop. But if you’re looking to get an estimate of your entire financial aid package, including state- and institution-based aid and scholarships, then it’s just the first stop in a longer journey.

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Here’s what you should know about the tool — and what to do after you get your results:

How the Federal Student Aid Estimator works

The Federal Student Aid Estimator — formerly known as the FAFSA4caster — is a free tool from the U.S. Department of Education that provides an early estimate of your federal student aid eligibility. Like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the estimator analyzes your household income and assets to determine your Student Aid Index or SAI (formerly Expected Family Contribution or EFC).

You can use estimates for those amounts, but the more specific information you can provide, the more accurate your results will be.

Your aid estimate will include funding through federal direct loans, federal work-study and Pell Grants if you’re eligible for them.

How to use the Federal Student Aid Estimator

Step 1: Input your information

On the first page of the tool, you’ll be asked for basic personal and financial information including:

  • Your birthday.

  • Marital status.

  • Legal residence.

  • Grade level when you begin college.

There will also be questions about dependents, family size, and your, and parental if applicable income and assets. It helps If you have bank statements and investment information on hand for more accurate results.

Step 2: See possible financial aid

On the next page, you’ll see your projected Pell Grant award, the national average award amount for work-study funds, and your maximum direct loan amounts. Loan amounts will include both subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

Understanding your results

On the estimated results page, you’ll see four things:

  • Your estimated SAI.

  • An explanation of how your SAI is calculated.

  • The need-based aid you're eligible for, including grants, federal work-study and direct loans.

  • Your overall total estimated federal aid.

The estimator is a fairly accurate predictor of federal aid that's based on your SAI, like Pell Grants. But it is only one of the tools at your disposal and has limitations.

The tool doesn't account for institution- or state-based aid, for example. And, as noted earlier, the tool uses the national average for the amount of work-study funds, but the actual amount you receive could be higher or lower.

Other ways to forecast college costs

Unlike the Federal Student Aid Estimator, a college’s net price calculator can give you a concrete idea of the loans, scholarships and grants you may get from a specific school. For most net price calculators, your results will be based on historical financial aid data from that school.

The level of financial detail that these calculators request can vary widely from school to school. At a minimum, you’ll need to provide student and parent income tax returns and untaxed income information as well as bank and investment earnings statements. As a general rule, the more information a net price calculator asks for, the more accurate the results will be.

In the end, the Federal Student Aid Estimator and net price calculators can provide only estimates. External factors, like funding levels or changing enrollment goals, could affect the aid you receive at different schools.

Special financial or household circumstances, like drastic annual income fluctuations or high medical expenses, will have an impact on your aid, too.

“That’s not something a calculator would ask, but a lot of financial aid offices would take that into consideration when awarding aid,” says Meredith Barnhart, director of integrated communications at the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority.

Given those limitations, it’s best to use the estimator and net price calculators as guides and always talk directly with financial aid counselors at the schools you plan on applying to in order to discuss your aid eligibility.

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